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All for One
by Sarah Wildman

Post date 12.13.01 | Issue date 12.24.01    

Amardeep Singh, a slight 30-year-old with a neat turban and large, dark eyes, is very, very angry about the Indian government's treatment of his fellow Sikhs in Punjab. Though his parents were both born in Northern India, he asks not to be called "IndianAmerican." He doesn't like references to "historical enmity" in the subcontinent, because for him those enmities are "very real and very present." He founded the Sikh Coalition, an organization that educates Americans about Sikhism. But Singh doesn't only consider himself a Sikh; he consciously labels himself "South Asian." In the United States, he says, "South Asians share common characteristics, culture, and interests."

Singh's dual commitments illustrate a strange post-September 11 paradox. While the war on terrorism has inflamed religious and national divisions on the subcontinent (so much so that the press paints apocalyptic scenarios of regional nuclear war), in the United States it has probably done more to unify America's disparate South Asian communities than any event since the mass migration that brought them to these shores in large numbers three decades ago. Since 9/11, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepalis, Sri Lankans, and Indians have felt the sting of hundreds of hate crimes and thousands of ugly comments. Describing this backlash, the media has increasingly used the label "South Asian," providing the term a legitimacy it hadn't enjoyed before. The concept of South Asianness "has taken off," says Madhulika Khandelwal, an Asian American Studies professor at the University of Massachusetts who studies Indian immigrants in the United States. Because, to American bigots, Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs all look the same--brown--many victims are deciding they have a lot more in common than they had previously realized.

The term "South Asian" has always appealed to people in trouble. Among the first to embrace it were women battling domestic abuse. Purvi Shah, a board member for Sakhi, a Manhattan-based organization that gives emotional, educational, and legal support to South Asian women fighting domestic violence, calls the label "strategic": "We felt that, despite our national differences, there were cultural and historical similarities that we wanted to tap into in terms of combating violence." Taxi drivers in New York also rallied behind the South Asian banner early on: In May 1998, just after India and Pakistan tested their nuclear weapons, sending regional tensions through the roof, New York cab drivers held a major strike. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance--a major player in the strike--is at least 60 percent South Asian. "We organize across ethnicities in the industry, not at the expense of ethnic identities or differences," explains staff organizer Bhairavi Desai. "The larger base of solidarity is among issues of class, as taxi drivers."

The label Desi, or South Asian, has also gained a foothold among the Indian-American second generation. The Indian immigrants who came to the United States in the mid-1960s tended to settle and socialize within their specific linguistic and regional groups. Their children are less inclined to segregate themselves. Debasish Mishra, 28, the child of immigrants from Orissa, works for SAALT, which only recently changed its name from Indian American Leadership Center to South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow. The "issues that affect the Indian-American community domestically are not so different from those affecting Pakistani- or Bangladeshi-Americans," Mishra explains. "So there was no point in being so parochial."

To be sure, a handful of vocal Hindus reject the South Asian moniker, challenging the supposed commonalities between Hindus and Muslims in the United States. Ramesh Rao, a professor at Truman State University in Missouri, tells me the "whole South Asian business is junk" and "some kind of P.C." thing. (He also says: "Saying Islam is a religion of peace is classic monotheistic marketing.") When Rajiv Malhotra, who runs the Infinity Foundation, an organization that gives grants to projects that focus on Indian identity, learned that I was writing on this topic, he sent an e-mail to his friends asking them to contact me. They called for days, leaving messages about how they are Indian first and South Asian never. "A lot of Hindus have suddenly started realizing they better stand up and differentiate themselves from Muslims or Arabs," said Malhotra, as though to do so would end the backlash.

But the people who called at malhotra's behest were all first-generation. And while their assertion that "South Asian" stems from American victim politics may be largely true--it is also true that September 11 has made South Asians feel more victimized, more political, and more American than ever before. "The fact that I could be a target--that really brings people together, that shared vulnerability," says Khandelwal of UMass. "When I walk down the street ... [people] say, `Here's another brown guy,'" argues Sreenath Sreenivasan, a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism. "In this country," he says, "you need to build coalitions."

Those coalitions are not without costs. While embracing the term South Asian may give Americans of Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi descent greater influence over domestic politics, it will likely decrease their influence over foreign policy. Latino organizations generally avoid foreign policy, since their Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban members don't see eye to eye on questions like sanctions against Havana. Similarly, Asian American groups that include immigrants from Korea, Taiwan, and mainland China often find themselves divided--and therefore silent--on questions like arms sales to Taipei. The newly emerging South Asian organizations are equally constrained. "I think that we have to learn to separate India/Pakistan politics from IndianAmerican identity," explains Columbia's Sreenivasan. "What happens in Kashmir is the baggage we bring from the subcontinent." The website of the South Asian Journalists Association, which he co-founded, notes that the group does not "take stands on the politics of South Asia." Their agenda is here at home.

"South Asian," then, a term critics deride as the product of political correctness, may in fact be a sign of accelerating assimilation (especially compared to the less P.C. but even more avid separatism of Hindu nationalists). "What you're seeing is not only a movement to stand up for our civil rights but also a movement to ensure that the larger society knows that we are Americans," says Kris Kolluri, an Indian immigrant and senior policy adviser to House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. "Many of us [are] immigrants, but we profess our love to the United States as strongly or stronger than our love for where we came from." In this case, hyphenated identity ("South Asian-American") may be less a step away from unmodified Americanness than a step toward it. The bigots, who in patriotism's name have sought to make South Asian immigrants feel unwelcome, may have actually made them more American than ever before.

  SARAH WILDMAN is an assistant editor at TNR.





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